Mercury Kills

The Bush administration continues to stonewall on the subject of reducing mercury emissions, even though the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Michael Leavitt, admitted August 24 that fish in almost all of the country"s rivers and streams are heavily dosed with the toxic heavy metal.

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The EPA"s own annual fish advisory surveys reveal that 48 states (except for Wyoming and Alaska) issued mercury-in-fish warnings in 2003, compared to 44 states in 1993. "Mercury is everywhere," Leavitt admitted. He was quick to backpedal, however, claiming that this sharp rise in concern is a result not of higher mercury emissions, but of a greater amount of monitoring. Leavitt claims that manmade mercury emissions dropped 45 percent between 1990 and 1999.

Becky Gillette recently wrote in E about the dangers posed by people eating high amounts of mercury-contaminated seafood. "The fish are often contaminated by emissions from coal-fired power plants, incinerators and other industrial facilities that end up in the water, where mercury turns into its organic form, methylmercury, and accumulates in fish tissue," she wrote.

Pregnant women represent the number one risk group for mercury consumption, Gillette"s article added, because mercury can cross the placenta. The second group at most risk is children, because their nervous systems are just developing and are more sensitive to toxic exposure. “Effects at lower levels of mercury contamination are subtle, more obscure and, in a way, more dangerous,” said Jackie Savitz of the Coast Alliance. “Most people probably know a child who didn’t develop neurologically as quickly as he or she should have. Delayed neurological development is actually the result that would be caused by mercury poisoning.” The mercury threat to pregnant women is detailed in the current issue of E.

According to the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), "Coal-fired power plants are one of the largest unregulated sources of mercury pollution into the air. Eventually this mercury falls, settling in waterways and accumulating in fish. Recent EPA estimates indicate that one in six women of childbearing age has blood mercury levels that exceed what is safe for a fetus." The group publishes a brochure to help educate consumers.

Michael Bender of MPP criticizes a Food and Drug Administration advisory last March saying that white albacore tuna can safely be consumed once a week. He charges that the FDA"s own tests reveal that the single serving "would likely result in a weekly exposure well above the EPA’s maximum safe level of exposure, based on a detailed risk assessment endorsed by the National Research Council as science-based and appropriately protective." A 22-pound toddler eating only two ounces of albacore tuna per week with the average mercury concentration found by FDA would have an intake nearly three times the EPA’s recommended limit, says Bender.

"The more waters we monitor, the more we find mercury," said Leavitt. And yet, according to the New York Times, the Bush administration is shortly to announce industry-supported mercury rules that will include a "cap-and-trade program." Mercury trading allows companies to trade credits and obtain a "pollution allowance." The approach has been heavily criticized by environmentalists and by Democrat John Kerry as weak and protracted.

The environmental coalition Clear the Air says the Bush plan would:

"Delay affordable reductions in mercury pollution from power plants by a decade, and allow six to seven times more mercury into the nation"s air than the Clean Air Act requires.

"Allow some plants to avoid cutting mercury pollution by purchasing pollution credits from other cleaner plants.

"Ignore more than 60 other toxic air pollutants from power plants, such as dioxin and arsenic, which also pose significant health threats.

Environmentalists say the technology exists today to reduce mercury emissions from power plants by 90 percent in three years—from about 50 to five tons annually. But the Bush plan would do far less, reducing it only to 34 tons by 2010. Since we know how dangerous mercury is, we know how widespread it is, and we know how to reduce it dramatically, why aren"t we doing it?